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Where the Arts Mean Business

Where the Arts Mean Business

By Robin D. Schatz

Educating Arts Entrepreneurs: Bill Baker, the director of Fordham’s Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy, and Education, teaches a course on the business of the performing arts that attracts students from Fordham and the Juilliard School. Photo by Bud Glick

Bill Baker, Ph.D., president emeritus of New York’s WNET, the nation’s largest public television network, doesn’t coddle his 18 students from the Juilliard School and Fordham, who have come for a peek behind the curtain of the performing arts industry. The numbers he presents on the first day of class aren’t pretty. In fact, they’re pretty depressing.

Put together all the dance, opera, jazz, and symphony performances across the country, throw in rock music concerts for good measure, and the performing arts in the United States only generate about $15 billion in revenue a year—about the same amount as Toys “R” Us Inc., Baker tells them. Some 8,800 performing arts companies only employ about 53,000 people on the creative side, about two-thirds of whom work full time.

Students are sobered by the numbers. “Their assumption was that after all this work and practice and perfection, they’d walk out the door and people would start throwing rose petals at them, and everything would be fine,” says Baker, the Claudio Acquaviva, S.J., Chair at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education, and journalist in residence at the University. “Some of my students have said, ‘All I want to do is play,’” he added. “And I say, ‘Well, that’s great, but are you interested in eating? Are you interesting in getting a place to sleep?’”

The Business of the Performing Arts in the 21st Century, sponsored by Fordham and taught at the Juilliard School’s Lincoln Center campus, is a 14-week plunge into the business realities of the institutions that populate and profoundly influence the American cultural landscape—from the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic on down to the smallest regional dance and theater companies. Baker’s goal isn’t to depress his hopeful audience, he says, but rather to inspire them to beat the odds by understanding the industry they’re entering. How do the arts work as a business and how do these arts enterprises function in the U.S. economy, the course asks. What is the role of philanthropy and for-profit business in the performing arts?

A growing number of conservatories are implementing courses in entrepreneurship as arts institutions struggle in the post-recessionary environment to get funding and attract audiences. Joseph Polisi, the president of Juilliard, says he invited Baker to teach the course to offer his conservatory students in music, dance, and theater a new perspective on their chosen endeavors. “These days, no profession will automatically absorb graduates,” Polisi says. “In the arts, it’s a particularly challenging experience.”

Now in its fourth year, the class is open to senior and graduate students at Juilliard, and to Fordham undergraduates. The class often has a waiting list—not surprising given the first-class roster of visiting lecturers, contacts Baker cultivated over his 20 years leading WNET. This semester, students are hearing from Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, and Peter Martins, ballet master of the New York City Ballet, among others.

One of Baker’s students is Jaclyn Wheatley, a junior in the Ailey/ Fordham B.F.A. in dance program who is pursuing a minor in business administration. While she hopes to work as a dancer after graduation, long range she sees herself running a dance training institution or working on the business side of an arts organization. “If you’re lucky, you can dance until 35 or 40, but that’s if you’re lucky,” says Wheatley, who already has suffered several injuries. “It’s definitely important to think down the road.”

Wheatley is one of 10 Fordham students in the class this year. Most are studying business but several are theater minors. Without the class, she says, she’d never have had the opportunity to meet Peter Martins, a good example of someone who came up through the ranks as a dancer to run one of the most important dance companies in the world.

Being in the epicenter of New York’s thriving arts scene around Lincoln Center makes Baker’s job easier, he admits. Some guests just have to walk across the street. “If I were teaching this same class in Akron, Ohio, there would be no conceivable way I could get the head of the Met Opera or Carnegie Hall to speak,” he says.

Guest lecturer Diane Wittry, the conductor of the Allentown Symphony in Allentown, Pa., and author of Beyond the Baton: What Every Conductor needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2007), speaks to the class about the pragmatic side of an artistic career—everything from negotiating contracts to doing effective networking and marketing. She takes students through an exercise to figure out how to achieve their goals, working backwards to examine the steps they take along the way. “I always say, ‘Take the opportunities, build them into what you want and keep your eye on the end plan,’” says Wittry.

For Allison Job, a classical double bass player who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Juilliard, taking Baker’s class led her to apply to Fordham Law School. “It was a wonderful opportunity to push myself to understand the inner workings of these arts organizations and to speak to these people in a very intimate setting about their work,” says Job, a first-year law student.

Like most professors, Baker has tweaked his class to meet his students’ needs. “Most of them are not going to wind up at the Met Opera,” he says. “I’ve learned that it’s not just the big arts organizations that matter. Over the years, I’ve started to tilt it more toward entrepreneurism.”

This semester, for the first time, Baker’s students will produce a business plan for a performing arts venture. That means understanding not just how to make beautiful music or create an exceptional dance but how to pay for it—with state and federal grants, foundation money, and so forth.

Percussionist Alex Lipowsky, a former student, has taken Baker’s entrepreneurial lessons to heart. Armed with two degrees from Juilliard, he founded the Talea Ensemble, a New York City-based contemporary music group that performs all over the world. His ensemble is operating at a surplus, through a complex web of funding from governmental sources, private foundations, and individuals, and he’s making a living wage. More important, he and the other nine musicians that form the core of the group have complete artistic control.

“Nothing stops us at this point,” says Lipowsky, who spoke to Baker’s students in early February. “Bill’s class really showed us that if you want to, you can make this happen. He showed us there are no boundaries.”

That inspiration speaks to Baker’s unflaggingoptimism about the arts, despite the daunting numbers.

“The performing arts are so critical to the fabric of our society that society won’t allow them to die, and there will always be people who are willing to do this—not because they want to make money from it, but because they feel they have to do it.”

—Robin D. Schatz, a New York-based freelance writer, is an adjunct professor of journalism at Fordham.

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